Not so special teams a killer in Eugene

EUGENE, Ore. - I have to submit my mea culpa to Steve Sarkisian and the Washington Huskies: Rock bottom was indeed last week. And if a casual sports fan saw the 53-16 box score, it's doubtful they'd come to the conclusion that UW was that much better this week than last week's 41-point drubbing at the hands of Stanford at home.

But these Dawgs hung in against a record Oregon crowd at Autzen Stadium, ultimately undone by special teams that were anything but special Saturday.

The Huskies gave up more yards to the Ducks (522) than the Cardinal (470), but they improved measurably on the offensive side of the ball, especially given it was Keith Price's first career start. He gave a gutty, yet schizophrenic performance that saw him attempt every conceivable way to make a play.

That's why it was hard to envision any scenario where UW was going to stay with No. 1 Oregon, yet Washington's defense were the first team to keep the Ducks off the scoreboard in the first quarter this year.

By halftime, it was 18-6, and the Huskies could have been closer if they hadn't had a touchdown brought back by an ineligible player downfield. In Sarkisian's mind, it wasn't all that much different from the 2009 UO-UW game, where it was 15-6 at intermission.

"I thought all in all, our guys battled," he said after the game. "They competed against an excellent football team. I thought we had some real crucial missed opportunities early in the ball game - convert on third down, the touchdown that gets called back for covering up a receiver…I thought our defense played a really nice first half of football."

And then came the start of the third quarter; a pass from UO's Darron Thomas to D.J. Davis for 62 yards that was brought back because of a personal foul on the Ducks' Darrion Weems. Three plays later, Washington's Nate Williams blitzed Thomas, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Huskies' Mason Foster.

Price, not to be denied a second time, connected with D'Andre Goodwin for a 17-yard touchdown, and all of a sudden it was 18-13. These Huskies? The same group that had been outscored 85-14 the last two games were now within a score, on the road, against the top team in the country.

It was too good to be true. And the Ducks showed why on the ensuing kickoff. Josh Huff took Erik Folk's kick at his own 14 and rambled 80 yards before being tackled by freshman Taz Stevenson. One play later, UO had their two score cushion.

Two drives later, UW was able to bring the game back to single digits with a 47-yard Folk field goal with 6:14 left in the third quarter. Guess what? Huff struck again, this time with an even longer return that was eventually nullified due to a holding call.

"Unfortunately we didn't help ourselves on special teams," Sarkisian said. By the end of the game, Washington had surrendered over 300 total return yards to Oregon, and gave up nearly 100 more to returns called back. And that's not even mentioning how Folk and punter Kiel Rasp have apparently taken over the role of UW's most sure-handed tackler in the special teams game. Folk made at least one tackle on kickoff returns, with one crashing into the Oregon sideline, eliciting thousands of boos from the Duck faithful looking for a personal foul call - and Rasp made a spectacular reach of Cliff Harris' jersey on an Oregon punt return in the second quarter, a one-handed snag that probably saved a touchdown, one that the Ducks scored two plays later anyway.

"When we made the game…when we put a little bit of stress and pressure on them - when we get the turnover and score on them in the third quarter, that kickoff return really took a lot of wind out of our sails. That really spun the game back in their favor and got their moo going, and they were hard to stop."

Up to that point, the Huskies had scratched and clawed for everything they had gotten. Led by a rookie, it was going to be hard sledding for the offense even at home, let alone a record-setting crowd at Autzen. But the defense had played their bend-but-don't-break style and came up with turnovers and opportunities to keep the Ducks' high-powered offensive attack in neutral.

But Sarkisian and staff had absolutely no answer for what Oregon did to them on special teams. The Ducks averaged 35 yards every time they touched the ball on a return. They knew a lot of Washington's starters also doubled up on special teams, and that was their achilles' heel. The big returns allowed the Ducks to keep the margin just comfortable enough where they could pin their ears back on defense and make life even more uneasy for Price and the Huskies' offense.

"We were exhausted," Sarkisian said of UW's defense. "We didn't help them offensively. We couldn't sustain drives offensively to give our defense a rest. The game got in their control the way they like it, when they can go fast and wear you out.

Oregon played 61 players; Washington 47. The Ducks love to rotate players, especially on defense. It's not surprising to see UO go at least two-deep with their defensive rotations. Other than Princeton Fuimaono spelling Victor Aiyewa for a couple plays when Aiyewa went down with an injury - Washington stayed the entire game with the same three linebackers.

That didn't do UW in on defense, per se. But it did have dramatic repercussions on special teams.

"Part of what it was - we have so many of our starters that cover kicks - the Mason Fosters, Cort Dennisons, Victor Aiyewas - and they were spent tonight," Sarkisian said. "They were worn out because of Oregon's offense, so we had to put backups in. Maybe that was part of it. Maybe we have to go back out and play our best guys."

Their best guys played well on Saturday - they have nothing to be ashamed about. Too bad there weren't three times as many of them. And ultimately that spelled the difference between UO rolling and UW hanging on for dear life.

"They are an extremely deep football team - in all three phases," Sarkisian said. "And I think that's why they are so good. They are fresh. They are rolling guys through and they are staying fresh. Ultimately we, as a football team, have to look at depth and our ability to create depth so we can roll guys in and not have to leave the same 11 in for all four straight quarters against a team like that. Maybe there will come a day when we can play with a two deep and roll guys in and stay fresh throughout the whole ball game."

For now, it was still the worst defeat the Huskies have suffered at the hands of Oregon in nearly 30 years, and Washington will again have to take solace in the little things - like not turning the ball over against the best ball-hawking defense in the country - and keeping UO out of the end zone for the first quarter. Unfortunately the little things haven't amount to much of anything over the course of this year.

"I thought we were much more competitive than the last two weeks, or at least the last six quarters leading up to this ball game," Sarkisian said. "I thought our defense played with huge hearts."

And there were also some subtle signs that Sarkisian is also growing up on the job. Down 12 in the third quarter, Sarkisian had a choice to make on a fourth and 3 at the Oregon 29. Would he go for it, or would he take the safe points and lean some more on his defense?

He took the field goal - which still put the Huskies down more than one score, but it showed that the Head Coach in Sarkisian can overrule the Offensive Coordinator. Last year Sark would have rolled the dice without thinking twice about it a year ago.

"We just wanted to keep some momentum on our side," he said. "It was a feel-good drive, and I wanted to keep some momentum going."

It going to take more than huge hearts and feeling good, however, for the Huskies to go bowling. It's going to take three wins in a row - starting a week from Thursday against UCLA - for that to happen. Rock bottom is gone, and post-season aspirations are still within their control, but the Oregon game was simply a reminder of how far away UW is from really competing with the best in the west - let alone the best in the country.

"We're climbing back," said Sarkisian. "I'm proud of our kids, I'm proud of our coaches. I thought we had a nice game plan. When you have opportunities against a really good team, you better capitalize. And we didn't. We missed some opportunities tonight."


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